The stories of the two albums I'm reviewing here are incredibly similar. Both tales occur in the psychedelic late 1960s, one in New York, the other in swingin' London. Both projects were driven by producers concerned with keeping pace with current trends. Both efforts resulted in albums which bear a remarkable sonic paisley pop resemblance, one revered and highly collectible, the other virtually unknown apart from a select few (like me) who have discovered it.
Both records were also doomed to obscurity by their producers for reasons not entirely known, enjoying (if you will) very limited releases back in their day. The records in question are Color Blind by The Glitterhouse and Would You Believe by Billy Nichols. I recently came across a used copy of the Billy Nichols album that had been reissued on CD in 1999 and even it --now out of print -- is fetching collectors pricing upwards of $50 on eBay and Amazon! I got my copy for $2.99! Reading the liner notes, that prompted me to write this piece for you, Dear Readers, hopeful purveyors of fine (if obscure) rarities.
The Billy Nicholls album is a fascinating story which, in short, involves a young lad of 16 somehow getting his demos to George Harrison which ultimately led to him getting a staff writing position with Andrew Loog Oldham (of The Rolling Stones fame) who had recently started his own label, Immediate Records. Oldham was apparently eager to create a British answer to the harmonious sounds of The Beach Boys and other West Coast sunshine pop stars like The Mamas and The Papas. Nicholls was his solution -- it was very much a scenario of the right songs and the right voice appearing at the right place at the right time. Fast forward, Nicholls records a twee but lovely album of post Summer of Love psychedelic pop backed by The Small Faces, only to have the album shelved after 100 promotional copies were pressed (ensuring it would become an ultimate holy grail -- if you will -- among fans of British pop psychedelia, original pressings commanding thousands of dollars from collectors).
The music on Would You Believe is less like The Beach Boys and more like -- and I mean this in a good way -- The Partridge Family or The Cowsills, with plenty of harpsichords, string sections and nice harmonies. The comparison to the Beach Boys on the CD reissue liner notes is perhaps misguided since there is little of the densely-layered, Spector-esque invention that went on in Brian Wilson's productions. Why was it shelved? Apparently, no one really knows. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is easy to see that this album -- along with The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society -- was a record just a moment out of step with its times given the eventual release timing in 1968. Had it come out in 1967, perhaps it would have had a chance, but by 1968 the Vietnam war was escalating, riots were happening and pop music took on a decidedly harder edged, what with Hendrix letting his freak flag fly, The Who turning up the volume to 11 and "heavy" bands like Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly rising up in the ranks (and Billboard charts). So perhaps it is understandable why the record was not really issued ... well, that and the fact that the label was apparently on the brink of bankruptcy!
Would You Believe is a fine collection that reminds me at times of The Left Banke with its gorgeous string-laden harmony hits "Walk Away Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina." With groovy songs like "Girl From New York" and "London Social Degree" (L.S.D. , get it?), this first effort by Billy Nicholls is well worth checking out if you can find a copy. And the good news is Nicholls went on to make other recordings including appearances on Pete Townshend's first solo album Who Came First as well as singing back up vocals on The Who's Who Are You? Later he toured with The Who as a back up singer and even served as their music director!
The tale behind The Glitterhouse is almost as sordid, and the resultant obscurity more frustrating Like Mr. Oldham, New York based producer Bob Crewe -- hit producer of The Four Seasons! -- was seeking an act that could establish his artistic presence alongside more progressive productions emanating out of Britain by the likes of The Beatles. He found a band from Long Island called The Glitterhouse, with its unconventional (for the period) line-up featuring Mike Gayle, an African American lead singer and main songwriter. The group was hired and put on salary as recording commenced at A&R Studios in New York, engineered by the legendary Roy Cicala and Shelly Yakus (who were working at night on the debut album by The Band!). Crewe drove the production and overall sonic vision for the group's songs (vocal arrangements, etc.). The group was told not to perform live at that time as there was to be a grand unveiling which would ideally take the world by surprise.
The best laid plans, as they say...
Along the way, the band members were brought in to sing vocals on the soundtrack to a new film starring Jane Fonda -- yes, the cult classic camp SciFi flick, Barbarella! -- which was apparently stirring a lot of buzz back in the day; it was thus seemingly going to be something of a "one-two punch" (according to reissue liner notes) with Barbarella coming out first followed by the full on album by The Glitterhouse. Alas, before the band knew it, everything stalled. The soundtrack album and single didn't do anything. By the time the real Glitterhouse album was issued, the powers that be had lost interest and in short, nothing really happened. A single made the Top 50 in New York, but there was little publicity and the band didn't get to go on the road to promote the record.